Patronage Heaven

The Boston Herald has been having a field day with the latest developments in the U.S. Attorney’s prosecution of former Probation Department commissioner John J. O’Brien. Should we be “shocked – shocked(!)” at the fact that even our own Massachusetts Trial court maintained a list of politically connected job seekers, much like the list kept by O’Brien?

Not really. As the political scientist Daniel J. Elazar wrote years ago in “Marketplace and Commonwealth, and the Three Political Cultures,” Massachusetts has an individualistic political culture – it behaves like a marketplace, including politicians assisting job seekers in exchange for support.

One of my favorite quotes of recent days is from the Herald’s story Patronage as Policy? Boston city councilor Charles Yancey responded to a query about his name appearing on the list with the disclaimer that he didn’t recall the job seeker, but “I hope whoever it was got a job, because I make no apologies for trying to help people. … There was certainly no quid pro quo. I can guarantee you that.”

Not to be outdone for candor, Councilor Steven Murphy explained “Part of our job as a city councilor is to advocate for people. We advocate for constituents. It’s part of my job. I helped and he succeeded (in getting a job). That’s a good thing. Government worked.”

As Elazar writes in an individualistic system “political culture is based on a system of mutual obligations rooted in personal relationships.” The system’s “politicians are interested in the office as a means of controlling the distribution of the favors or rewards of government rather than as a means of exercising governmental power for programmatic ends.”

Those who believe government office is primarily to be sought to promote some higher good belong to what Elazar calls the moralistic culture. In Massachusetts such high minded political aspirants have come to dominate the statewide apparatus of the Democratic Party (since the rise of Michael Dukakis). U.S. Attorney Carmen Ortiz would fall into this group as would Attorney General Martha Coakley, whose prosecution of former Treasurer Tim Cahill did not end well, though some prosecutorial face-saving was achieved in a settlement with Cahill.

At the time of the hung jury in the Cahill case I wondered if the lone holdout for a not guilty had indulged in a form of juror nullification – ‘yes AG you proved your case, I just don’t think it is criminal.’

As Elazar explains it in an individualist political culture the public is relatively indifferent to what moralists might see as corrupt behavior, unless the conduct is truly brazen and outrageous (I mean you Sal DiMasi). O’Brien’s attorneys release of a document detailing a patronage list maintained in the Trial Court is meant to suggest that patronage is political business as usual, not criminal behavior.

They’ll only need one cultural individualist on the jury.

About Maurice T. Cunningham

Maurice T. Cunningham is Associate Professor of Political Science at the University of Massachusetts at Boston. He teaches courses in American government including Massachusetts Politics, The American Presidency, Catholics in Political Life, The Political Thought of Abraham Lincoln, American Political Thought, and Public Policy. His book Maximization, Whatever the Cost: Race, Redistricting and the Department of Justice examines the role of the DOJ in requiring states to maximize minority voting districts in the Nineties. He has published articles dealing with the role of the Catholic Church in Massachusetts politics and on party politics in the state. His research interests focus upon the changing political culture of Massachusetts.
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